Fall 2019

Notes from the Field

Here are a few of the things we’ve been working on the last few months, and some of what’s to come in the next few:

  • After major flooding this spring and summer, we’ve been working with FEMA to repair the worst of the damage. We hope to soon be letting bids to remove sand and silt from Starr’s Cave, repair two sections of the Flint River Trail, repair the damaged road and camp pads at Maple Loop, and re-grade and re-rock the boat ramps along the Mississippi.
  • We’ve seen record-setting campground use at Big Hollow this summer. Except for only a couple weekends since the start of the camping season, the 32-site RV campground has been full to capacity. Most weeks, the park is full by Thursday evening or early Friday. It’s been great seeing all those families spending their weekends in our park. For those that can’t get a campsite at Big Hollow, there are almost always sites available at the 4th Pumping Station Campground and Sycamore Loop at Welter Recreation Area.
  • WeAmericorps NCCC Logo will host an Americorps NCCC crew from October 24 to November 8. The nine-person crew will spend most of their time eradicating invasive species at Big Hollow and Starr’s Cave, though we’ll probably throw in some trail work to break the monotony. Our focus will be on improving forest health by reducing the abundance of invasive honeysuckle and other species that overrun our wooded areas.
  • A timber harvest will be conducted at Hunt Woods this fall/winter. The harvest is being done as prescribed in the park’s forest stewardship plan. Removal of mature trees will give rise to a new generation, sustaining the long-term health of the forest. The harvest was originally scheduled to take place last year, but weather conditions prevented it from happening.

Fiscal Year 2019 Annual Report Now Available

Every year, Des Moines County Conservation publishes an annual report highlighting its major achievements and providing details on its operations, programming, and finances. Read the report here.

Celebrate our Great Volunteers!

Volunteers are critical to our operation here at Des Moines County Conservation. They help us with everything from staffing the nature center to maintaining parks to interpreting the night sky. As a way to say thanks for all that our volunteers do, we host an annual Volunteer Recognition Dinner the night before our Summer Celebration event. At these events, we give out awards to some of the year’s outstanding volunteers. This year’s award recipients were:

Volunteer Group of the Year: Friends of Des Moines County ConservationDSC00629

The Friends of Des Moines County Conservation have put in countless hours not only improving our parks, but fundraising for those improvements, recruiting volunteer help, and spreading the word about our many parks and facilities. Some of the projects they tackled last year include repairing the Old Zion School, installing wayfinding signage on the trails at Big Hollow, and fundraising for future park improvement.

Environmental Educator of the Year: Kate Williams-Ramirez

DSC00631A couple years ago, Kate Williams-Ramirez (then just Kate Willams) showed up at our nature center asking if she could volunteer with us. She didn’t care what work we had for her, she just wanted to give her time to the cause of connecting people with the outdoors through our department. Since then, Kate has done everything from staff the nature center to helping with education programs to building databases. And along with it, she’s brought her trademark enthusiasm and positivity with her every time she shows up. She even held her wedding this summer at Starr’s Cave, giving out little jars of pollinator seed to those in attendance.


Volunteer of the Year: Colette and Otto GroenewaldDSC00622

The Groenewalds have served as volunteer camp hosts at our parks for several years. But when they agreed to host at Big Hollow this year, we’re fairly certain they had no idea the job they were taking on. With the explosive growth in visitation at that campground, their little volunteer gig became a full-on, full-time (and then some) job. But to them, it wasn’t so much a job as a lifestyle. Colette and Otto have created an environment in that park that few parks could ever hope to have. Our staff constantly receive comments from campers about how helpful Colette and Otto were, how clean the park is, and how they can’t wait to come back again. The Groenewalds take camp hosting to new levels at Big Hollow. It’s not uncommon to see Colette passing out popsicles to kids on hot days, helping campers move from one campsite to another because they love the park so much they want to extend their stay, or fielding endless calls on her personal phone from campers hoping there are spots available. She even goes as far as leaving her cell phone number on her camper door when she goes into town! There’s no question that the success of Big Hollow is due in large part to their dedication to making it such a great place to spend a weekend with the family.

The Welcome Return of Our “Competition”Geode SP sign

Great news! After being closed for the better part of two seasons, the campground at Lake Geode State Park finally reopened on September 23rd.

Lake Geode is not one of our parks. In fact, it’s not a county park at all. It’s one of about 70 state parks operated by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. So, in a way, the park is kind of like our “competition.”

But we don’t see it that way. We think it’s great that there are nearly 50 more campsites available in our area now. More opportunity for outdoor recreation is a win for all of us.

Our Director recently shared his thoughts on this topic in his monthly column in The Hawk Eye. You can find the story on his blog at www.outdoorexecutivedad.com.

Nature Center Notes

Summer CampStarr’s Cave Nature Center had an exciting summer packed with camps, public programs, and our first ever wilderness trek. We are already planning programs for next summer including another full moon paddle program and several new day camp opportunities for students.

We are well into our fall schedule of field trips and classroom visits. We're excited to share that we've added a full time AmeriCorps member to our education team this year to help us serve more schools and classrooms. Welcome Kelly Mickael!


Kelly is a Burlington, Iowa native who graduated from Cornell College in 2018 with a B.A. in Kelly Mickaelbiology and a minor in environmental studies. In 2016, she was part of a long-term field research study on ornate box turtles in Iowa. She was later published as a minor author on juvenile ornate box turtle growth rates. In 2017, Kelly worked at the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minnesota where she focused on black bear animal care as well as environmental education. After college, she worked for the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Virginia. There she worked in the endocrinology lab studying the reproductive and stress hormones of cheetahs for the species survival plan. She is looking forward to sharing her experiences with the community and working with Starr's Cave Nature Center. As an AmeriCorps member, Kelly will focus on the development and delivery of environmental education programs throughout the community.

Interested in bringing a group or class to Starr’s Cave for a field trip or program? Call or stop in the Nature Center to schedule a visit. Can’t make it out to Starr’s Cave for a field trip? Don’t worry, we can always come to you!  We have many programs ready for classrooms, care centers, and public events.  Contact us for more information regarding available programs, (319) 753-5808 or by email.

Upcoming Events

October 12
Paddle in the Park

October 12
Halloween in the Campground

October 18
Buy two, get one

paddlehalloweenCampfire
DMCC Environmental Education staff will be on Big Hollow Lake once a month from June thru October. Get out on the water for some paddling fun as we explore the lake. We will see birds, fish, and fall colors. A limited number of boats are available and space is limited. Registration for each event is required in advance.

Registration Info.
Come celebrate Halloween in the Campground! This all-ages public event will feature pumpkin painting and fall-themed crafts, hayrack rides, costume contests, a bonfire and s'more roasting, trick-or-treating among the participating RV's, prizes for campsite and camper decorations, and more!

More Info.
Pay for Friday & Saturday night in any Des Moines County campground (Big Hollow, 4th Pumping Station or Welter), get a voucher for a free night to use any time later. Applies only to electric sites.

Witte Observatory will be open Friday night.


More Info.

Wild At HeartWilderness Trek

An essay by Kent Rector, DMCC Environmental Education Coordinator

I’ve always been drawn to “wild” places. As a child I spent hours in my family’s yard playing in the bushes, digging in the dirt, and climbing trees. I guess I wouldn’t recognize our yard as “wild” these days but to the mind of a six-year-old living in Waverly, Iowa, my yard seemed huge and full of mystery. As I grew older, I started venturing further out. I started exploring the dry-runs and wooded areas around town. Eventually I found myself along the Cedar River on an isolated sandbar camping with friends nearly every weekend. I can now boast that I’ve spent countless days and nights on trails, in National Parks and Forests throughout the nation, and I still search for “wild” places today.

This summer I had the privilege of sharing my search with six high school students and a coworker. A large part of my job with Des Moines County Conservation is to develop programs that promote outdoor recreation and environmental education. In fact, the mission of my division is to “develop an environmentally responsible community.” So, I decided to put together a Wilderness program for students living in Des Moines County and after about ten months of planning, training, scheduling, and fundraising, everything came together. But why wilderness?

Did you know that there are zero acres of congressionally designated Wilderness in Iowa? The Wilderness Act was passed in 1964 by Congress, creating the strictest form of protection for wild areas in the United States. The Act defines wilderness as:

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Pretty cool, right? In fact, studies have shown that people feel better simply knowing that there are vast stretches of wild untrammeled lands out there. Even if they never plan to visit them, just knowing they could gives them peace of mind and a since of connection to the land. Data from the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment indicate that protecting air quality, water quality, wildlife habitat, unique wild plant and animal species, and bequest to future generations are all consistently rated as the top five most important benefits of wilderness. Wilderness Connect, a conglomerate of wilderness study groups including the Wilderness Institute, the Arthur Carhart Training Center, and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research institute, states that Americans, whether urban or rural, also attributed a high importance to six additional benefits including the scenic beauty of wild landscapes, the knowledge that wilderness is being protected (existence value), the choice to visit wilderness at some future time (option value), the opportunity for wilderness recreation experiences, preserving nature for scientific study, and spiritual inspiration. Research is also finding a slew of personal and community health benefits, but that’s another story. The benefits are numerous, but in its most basic form Wilderness provides us a baseline to how nature functions without human meddling.

The concept of, or the connection to wilderness can be somewhat elusive for most Iowans. Probably because Iowa’s landscape is currently the most altered in the nation. Historically, prairie covered 75 to 80 percent of Iowa. Today, less than 0.1 percent of that original prairie remains, scattered across the state. Nationally, there are 767 areas totaling over 110 million acres of land declared and protected as Wilderness in the US. However, none of these areas are within Iowa. So, we needed a van.

With some help from our friends at Deery Brothers we loaded our steel horse on July 9th, 2019 and set out to explore the South San Juan Wilderness of Colorado. Six students, all of which had submitted applications that included essays describing their personal definition of wilderness, one coworker, and myself set out on an adventure together that would take 11 days, span three states, and required us to carry everything we needed for six days on our backs into the wilds. The trek focused on four pillars of learning: Environmental Science, Outdoor Skills, Stewardship, and the Study of Wilderness.

I can easily say that leading this trek has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career so far. It’s hard to describe or put into words all the emotions you go through on a long wilderness trek. There are times you feel like you’re on top of the world, other times you feel exhausted and done. It’s also hard to express how proud I am of these kids: Med-kit, Dangler, Chief, Bookworm, Goat, and Sasquatch. We all truly found ourselves through each other over the course of the trek. We laughed, smiled, and cried together. We struggled, climbed, and found strength together. We discovered and named a lake. We celebrated a birthday. We watched the stars and howled at the moon.

Each night, as part of our wilderness study, we did a reading from a collection of essays that I had packed with us. Each student took turns reading an article to the group which we then discussed. My favorite was titled “The Backcast,” an entry taken out of the book, “Paddle Whispers” by Douglas Wood.

The Backcast:

So why… why go through it? Why even be here? 

The second answer is easy. Because “here” is where the beauty is. Here is where the sunsets are. Here is where the campsites and campfires are, and the clear, deep waters, and the loons, and the pines, and the islands. And yes, the storms and the big winds and the rapids. Here is where the journey is. 

But why go through it? Why do I… why do I go through it? I think because no one else can go through it for me. And because the modern city world system uses people to get work done. Important work, supposedly. That’s the whole idea. That’s why we get paid. But here – here I’m using work… to get myself done. What better work is there than that? 

Or maybe… maybe it’s enough to say that I am here, as another voyageur once put it, “to iron out the wrinkles in my soul.”

And maybe it is only on the trail to nowhere-in-particular that you find the most important thing of all. Yourself. 

We packed out of the wilderness on July 17th, 2019.  We had hiked an average of seven miles a day, immersed ourselves in study of wilderness, learned valuable outdoor skills including Leave No Trace, and worked a total of 64 hours on the trails as part of our service learning.  As we loaded our gear into the van, sprits were high. Everyone was ready for a shower and some fresh food. But as we descended the long gravel road back towards Pagosa Springs, the van grew quiet. There were several tears shed along that road as the group realized what they had just accomplished, learned, and lived.

There is something that draws me to wild places and for some reason the wild is where I feel most alive. I’ve asked myself over and over if this trek was a success. I also ask myself, what was gained by offering such a program for the youth of Des Moines County, Iowa? The first question is simple. Yes… I consider this program not only a success, but I believe it has set a milestone in the environmental education efforts of Des Moines County Conservation. A program of this magnitude had never been done in the county before, and we did it brilliantly.

It’s the second part that I struggle with. It’s not such a simple answer, it’s as abstract as the aspens. It’s the wind whispering through the pines, and the purple moonlit sky over a mountain lake. The specific benefits of this program are yet to be seen. It resides in the hearts of all those who experience it. You could say we brought a little bit of the “wild” back to Iowa. We will see the benefits of this program for years to come as our students grow and live their lives. As they put to use the self-confidence they discovered in the wild. As they take responsibility for and strive to protect the “wild” places they value. As they grow to be stewards of the natural world we leave them.

I believe we will see the benefits of this program in the work they do, thanks to the work they did on this trip, on themselves...ironing the wrinkles out of their soul.

Fall park spotlight: luckenbill woods

Luckenbill Memorial StoneKnown for its tree diversity and Fall colors, Luckenbill Woods boasts 76 total acres with more than a mile of trails. It includes forested areas, native prairies, a pond and is managed as a wildlife refuge. 

In 2009, the property's north prairie became the site of Operation: Save the Quail, a cooperative bobwhite quail habitat restoration project between Julie Schnedler's 6th grade science class from Mediapolis and Des Moines County Conservation.

The project won the Disney Planet Challenge's Grand Prize and was featured on Good Morning America and thFloat Pice Disney Channel. The entire class went to Disneyland where they were guests of honor for three days. Since then, Luckenbill Woods has become a regular site for numerous other class projects.

In 1970, the original area was acquired as a gift from M. Virginia Sharar, heir to Benjamin Luckenbill, the original homesteader in Huron Township in 1853. The area was deeded to the DMCCB with the stipulation that the land be returned to its original state before homesteading.

A study was conducted listing all species of vegetation native to the area. Another study recorded the species presently existing in Luckenbill Woods. The main objective was to reestablish the areas a native timber. Tree and shrub plantings began in May 1971. Planting was completed in the spring of 1972. Very little unnatural development is planned for the area.

M. Virginia Sharar donated an additional 5.148 acres to DMCCB in August, 1979 to the original 32 acres at Luckenbill Woods. This area was developed into an arboretum. The purpose of this area is to be able to compare the arboretum with the adjacent re-established native timber and prairie.

An additional 20 acres was deeded by M. Virginia Sharar in April, 1985. This 20-acre area was restored to native grasses.

In April, 1986, M. Virginia Sharar deeded an additional 19 acres to DMCCB. A survey was conducted by Smith and Associates of the entire area. It was the desire of Mrs. Sharar for the DMCCB to own and maintain all of her previous property except for the 3.71 acres around her residence. This brought the total acres deeded to DMCCB to 76.2 acres.

In January, 1992, the DMCCB approved the "Luckenbill Woods Restoration Plan" for the area. The restoration plan included habitat improvement, improvement to the trails, and updating the nature trail and school curriculum.

More Info.